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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Teachers Appreciate the Value of Adequate Preparation Time

At Sherman Oaks Community Charter School, educators meet daily for 90 minutes of professional development.
By Diane Curtis

Teacher Support: A Culture of Professional Development

Credit: Edutopia

It's 11:30 A.M. at Sherman Oaks Community Charter School, and not a teacher is to be found in a classroom or on the green lawns and pathways outside. Visibility aside, however, the teachers are doing some of their most important work.

Every school day between 11:30 and 1 P.M., Principal Peggy Bryan and all Sherman Oaks teachers gather in the teachers' room for ninety minutes of professional development -- a rare occurrence in schools despite the widespread call for more teacher professionalism. The teachers debate instructional theory and practice, try to solve problems that have come up or are likely to come up in their classrooms, discuss curriculum, commiserate, seek advice, offer encouragement, or quietly reflect or refine a lesson plan.

"It's always wonderful stuff -- things that get your brain stretched," says teacher Barbara Lynn of the content of the midday block. "I feel like a professional." While the format of the daily meeting is always open to revision, last school year two of the five-a-week "midday blocks," as they are called, were set aside for personal planning. Three of the five were scripted, with formal agendas and case-study analyses, in which each teacher documented the progress of two students, sharing and analyzing work samples with other teachers.

Listening and Being Listened To

Bilingual teachers confer about what's working and what's not and plan for refinements in the instruction. The math specialist leads workshops on math curriculum. Ditto for the literacy specialist. Conversations about whether practices in existence should be modified or eliminated often lead to consensus before the topics are brought up on formal agendas. For example, frequent informal discussions about Exhibition Nights, in which students present their work to parents and other members of the community, led to agreement that their frequency should be reduced from three times a year to two.

Before one midday block, teachers were asked to diagnose a piece of student writing with the idea of determining the next step in instruction. Using samples of work from the two students they each had decided to use for year-long case studies, they analyzed the pieces and offered suggestions for how best to improve that particular student's writing.

Now that she has experienced such stimulating collegial interaction plus the time for reflection and planning that is taken for granted in many other professions, Lynn says she could not go back to the isolation that is often the fate of teachers. "I need to be able to talk to adults. I treasure that time of sharing ideas. It's a time to bond ... which other teachers don't get to do."

Besides being able to bounce ideas about educational philosophy and strategy off each other, the teachers can talk about individual students. For example, if siblings are at Sherman Oaks, teachers of those students may seek each other out to learn as much as they can of the family circumstances and dynamics so as to better know the student in their class. "It adds to the community feeling that they're all our children," says Lynn.

Making Time for Professional Development

While many school administrators say that building time for teachers to join together as professionals during a jam-packed school day is practically impossible, Bryan, who seldom takes no for an answer, says it was easy. Teachers meet while students have lunch, study hall, and a recreation period. Paraprofessionals -- usually parents -- come in during that time and oversee the children. "It's simple, inexpensive, and it makes all the difference," Bryan says.

Becky Fleischauer, spokesperson for the National Education Association, says it's a "common refrain" of teachers that they don't have enough time for professional development, classroom preparation, or a forum to share good ideas. But she cautioned that such practices as midday block should be negotiated locally. "What to do with their lunch hour is very local and should include the input of teachers," Fleischauer said.

Peggy Bryan, conferring with second-grade teacher Sandra Villarreal, tries to visit the classrooms every day.

Credit: Peter DaSilva

Understanding Through Questioning

Bryan's style and philosophy prevent her from stepping in with a prescription for the one best way to solve a problem, both at midday block sessions and when she formally evaluates teachers, which she does every other year for each teacher.

"I don't think suggestions are too useful," Bryan says. For evaluations, Bryan comes into a classroom with a blueberry iBook, takes laptop notes on what the students are doing and the teacher's interaction with the students, and then immediately turns those notes into questions for the teacher and prints them on the spot.

"I leave them with questions," she explains. When a follow-up discussion is scheduled, Bryan talks through the questions with the teachers and allows them to reflect on their classroom actions. "Ordinarily, they get back to what they need to do next." If they're really stuck, Bryan may refer them to another teacher.

"If they learn from each other, it's so much better. You're fostering that whole sense of interdependence and independence." No teacher should be dependent on one source for answers, just as no student should be dependent on one source for answers, Bryan states. That philosophy has also been transferred to the classroom, where teachers encourage students to seek help from each other.

Sherman Oaks teachers like Sandra Villarreal praise Bryan for demonstrating morale-boosting respect for the staff in many ways, not least of which are giving them an equal voice in decisions and allowing them to attend outside professional development conferences of their own choosing. Through keeping an eye out for what her teachers would be interested in, letting them decide what conferences or classes would best benefit their teaching, employing an on-site, full-time substitute teacher, and taking advantage of grants, Bryan has created a system in which professional development is valued and regularly and advantageously used.

The school and students ultimately benefit because teachers return from such conferences energized and eager to share their newfound educational knowledge with fellow teachers. Villarreal, who teaches first and second grades, is particularly interested in technology and bilingual education and has been a leader in imparting the latest theories and strategies to her colleagues.

Fourth-grade teacher Osvaldo Rubio helps students with their desktop publishing. In the spirit of growing their own expertise at Sherman Oaks, Rubio was previously a student teacher from the local university and now serves on the leadership team, providing professional development to other teachers.

Credit: Peter DaSilva

Family Within and Without the School

The family feeling that Sherman Oaks has cultivated with the community also is evident within the school. Teacher "field trips" have included a visit to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. A three-day summer retreat -- most recently held in Pajaro Dunes -- combines both fun and purpose.

"I would say our first priority is bonding and having fun together, spreading culture, reconnecting," Bryan says of the August gathering. But work is accomplished, too. The curriculum focus for the 2000-2001 school year is math and logic, so the retreat included conversations and workshops about math and logic materials and instructional strategies.

"The people you have on your staff will make or break you," Bryan insists, which makes the hiring process -- in which a team of teachers interviews each candidate -- all the more critical. The hiring process is unique, and prospective Sherman Oaks teachers cannot be shy about being in a fishbowl. Candidates are asked to solve a classroom problem or come up with an idea to improve teaching at the school -- with fellow teacher applicants. The domineering problem-solver who imposes his or her ideas on others is hastily rejected since collaboration is so important at Sherman Oaks. Candidates also are handed a laptop, and the staff gets a quick idea whether the teacher candidate can meet the Sherman Oaks requirement that all teachers have knowledge of technology.

What Sherman Oaks reaps, Bryan says, are "Renaissance" risk-takers who are "smart and quick and sensitive and compassionate. ... This staff is an amazing group. They just exude enthusiasm and belief and confidence -- and it's contagious."

Diane Curtis is a veteran education writer and former editor for The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

Comments (74)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Katie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow! This is a fantastic way for teachers to use their time wisely. It really shows that these teachers care about their school and the progress of each of their students. I am glad to see that this school is putting the children first. I could not imagine getting 90 minutes a day to collaborate with my colleagues. In my distict we have 90 minutes per month! What a difference this school is making.

Jenny's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The set up this school has is incredible. The support and devotion to creating a positive, professional, and collaborative environment for all the staff and students makes me wonder why more school do not take this type of approach. It is so valuable learning from others. The way the administration helps to encourage professionalism within the school, makes me appreciate those schools I have taught in where you were supported by your administrators and encouraged to seek out answers, as opposed to being told what you are doing wrong and never given the chance to find out how to improve it. I do wonder like Charity asked how this school handles NCLB and if they are still able to maintain this approach.

Kayla's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I could not imagine being provided 90 minutes a day for collaborative planning. This year my school has begun to explore the use of vertical teams for professional development. This is definately a good chance to get to know your colleagues on not just a professional level but also a personal level. You are able to communicate across grade levels by sharing ideas and asking questions. Sherman Oaks School is definately ahead of the game when it comes to professionalism.

NSD's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A 90 minute, mid-day block for professional development is a wonderful idea. It seems as though educators always tend to be strapped for time to collaborate, discuss, and develop. It would be much easier if the time was built into the day. It is great that this school is able to provide this experience for their teachers. It involves everyone and I am certain that everyone benefits from the professional development time. This is a such a great concept.

Janie S.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We all have something to give to our colleagues whether we are first year or thirty year teachers. Principal Bryan's philosophy of interdependence and independence is exactly what we are asking of our students, so why shouldn't we foster this as a faculty? We all have areas of specialty or expertise. The veteran teacher may not be up to date on the latest technology, but the novice teacher may not have the interpersonal skills developed to communicate effectively with parents. When we learn to accept our weaknesses as opportunities to grow and are willing to learn from and with our peers, we have so much to gain.

I cannot brag on my K-5 school's allowances for collaboration and planning. Weekly, our grade level is allotted 30 minutes to plan, schedule, and discuss. If one of our paras is absent, which is frequently, we are out of luck for that week because there is no one to cover our class. Daily, I have about 40 minutes a day that is broken into two time slots. Of course, that 40 minutes includes a restroom break, calls to parents, checking school e-mail, completing necessary paperwork and forms, and possibly a small amount of planning. We rotate recess duties, and when not on duty, we have individual students in the classroom for remediation or behavioral issues. Essentially, there is no "built-in" planning time.
I can brag on the fact that my school does have a literacy coach. She is absolutely wonderful, providing classroom training in both Reader's and Writer's Workshop. She willingly coaches and collaborates with all faculty offering study groups and collegial meetings. None of these meetings, however, are during school hours.
I would love to have the opportunity to plan curriculum and share strategies with colleagues during a weekly 90 minute block, let alone 90 minutes EACH day.

Kudos to the principal of Sherman Oaks. This type of professional support is what can truly lead to 'No Child Left Behind'.

Janie S.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I specifically appreciated your comment concerning professional development of "meeting teachers where they are and bringing them up to the level where they need to be." I often feel that our building or corporation PD activities are not beneficial to the majority. I am very blessed in one PD aspect. My school (K-5 in Indiana) employs a literacy coach who is part of a literacy consortium in northern Indiana. She does her best to keep us trained and up-to-date in where we should be to best meet the needs of our students.I am a second year teacher. Last year, I learned the Writer's Workshop format under her guidance. This year, I am being coached in Reader's Workshop. She encouarages collaboration within and across the grade levels and provides occassions for teachers to observe each other in action. She goes above and beyond to organize study groups and professional development opportunities for our entire faculty. I feel very fortunate to have her expertise available.

Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I can't believe that there is actually a school that not only values teacher collaboration, but allows time for it. I teach in a school where it is suggested and supported that we work together. However, when is there ever time for that? Yes, we have a common 45 minute planning time with our grade level member, but how many other situations come up during the day that you have to end up dealing with during that period? It would be so nice to sit down with colleagues, for the benefit of the students and plan lessons, get feedback, discuss family dynamics, etc. This school sounds incredible.

Kathryn Dlamini's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love this article for many reasons. It is extremely exciting. I think that what really hit home was that collaborative practice is key to success. This article truly gives an example of collaborative practice! I really think that collaborative practice should be truly made a priority, it really does work!
I really valued the amount and variety of discussions that were described here. Not only about students work but their family lives and cultures as well, all extremely important to a child's learning!

Kristin (Walden U)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love that professional development is valued to the extent that teachers and administrators in this school are making a point to coordinate the necessary time and agenda to make it a workable, and worthwhile, use of time. There is a school district near me that has gone to a 4.5 day school week. Instead of taking full professional development days periodically throughout the school year, the K-8 classes go to school on a regular school day on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Then, on Wednesday, the students go to school in the a.m. only. Teachers use the afternoons for professional development. The H.S. students have the same schedule, except they have the morning off on Wednesday (great for teenagers), and go to school in the afternoons. The community education department offers "enrichment classes" for the K-8 students in the afternoon. Before getting my current teaching position, I taught one of these enrichment classes (language arts and cooking). This way, kids can still be active and learning, but they are focused on a specific workshop. The classes changed every 8 weeks throughout the year so that students could try a variety of classes, if they desired. And, teachers get the benefit of weekly blocks of time spent on professional development topics.

Kim Drakes's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is an awesome article. It needs to be sent to every principal in every state.
It is always helpful to see what others are doing in their schools. Does every practice work for every school? No. But having a bank of ideas to pull from is a start.
This school could be a model for every school. The idea of building and supporting the teachers is the key. I think it is wonderful that the community has taken a front seat approach to help their school become the best.
Teachers need time to plan, regroup, and collaborate with other teachers.
I applaud the principal for taking the first step in treating her teachers as professionals.

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